Reflections on the day the Decorah and Luther College community read Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail"
The question, "What injustice in the world am I not responding to?" flitted through my head when Sheila Radford-Hill, director of the Diversity Center, approached some of us with the idea of holding a mass "read-in" of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" on Jan. 20. Every time I read King's letter, I ask myself anew, what is the injustice in today's world that I am not responding to because I accept it as a fact of life? That was the question he had for a group of white southern clergymen who asked him to have more patience in his fight for civil rights in the United States.
"Patience"—what a beguiling word. Isn't that one of the very first lessons we learn from our parents? "Be patient," "Do not demand that toy/cookie/attention right now," "I will talk to you when I am done with this." It is also a Christian virtue exalted in the "Sermon on the Mount," when Jesus tells all those who are scorned by society that someday they will receive what they truly deserve (“the meek will inherit the Earth” and such). And yet, patience has also been used as a bludgeon against those who argue that the “way it has always been done” is precisely the way it should not be done. When Virginia Alexander, a black physician, applied for membership in the Philadelphia Quaker Race St. Meeting during the 1930s, the Quakers told her to wait while they talked about it. And then they told her to wait as they deliberated. And then they told her she could become an “auxiliary” member, because full membership might upset some existing members. This, even as one of the major conversations they had each week at their meeting was about racial justice. She accepted auxiliary membership for many years, while leading the conversation about changing white Christians’ attitudes toward African Americans. This is one example of many in which white liberals told black activists to have more patience, because change would come eventually. They just needed to give white people more time to accept that black people were human and deserved the full rights of citizenship…as the federal government had tried to ensure in the 14th amendment…in 1868. Perhaps they needed to wait another 95 years?
Martin Luther King, Jr. had heard about the "patience" necessary to obtain full citizenship all his life, as a child in Atlanta watching his father fight Jim Crow statutes; as a young man at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Penn., working on his Ph.D.; and as a young pastor at the Dexter Ave. Baptist Church, in Montgomery, Ala., inspiring hundreds of domestic workers to walk miles every day for over a year. That's just it—those women and King had endurance—something that includes patience, but also far exceeds it. Imagine walking to work five miles every day for 381 days, to a physically demanding job, to end not only segregation on the buses, but also end the bus drivers' power to sexually harass passengers.
It is because I often reflect on the determined walking of those women, the daily meetings hosted by King and others, and the years of marches, sit-ins, voter registration drives and protests that followed, that it so frustrates me when my students and others call non-violent resistance "passive." They seem to have this idea that activists did nothing but wait around until someone handed them their rights. The Civil Rights Bill? Eh, its time had come! It would have been passed regardless! And those activists, well they marched some…but…well…it was "passive."
I just stumbled on this week's "On Being" show, "Deromanticizing the Civil Rights Movement and Rediscovering its Humanity." The title excites me because it suggests that we look deeply at the actual humans involved in the Civil Rights Movement—their daily tragedies and their too-long-between successes. I always ask my students to chart the specific actions that activists took, hoping that they will see how long it took, how many sacrifices were made, and how much courage each individual had. My hope is that students will see the way that the whole movement knit together sometimes tiny and sometimes huge acts—walking, sitting, talking, yelling, praying, kneeling, standing—and built something monumental out of them. The exercise sometimes works to capture students’ imaginations, but not always.
All of which is to say, I was quite eager to join with Sheila in hosting a public reading of the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" today, Jan. 20. Robert Vrtis, assistant professor in Luther's theater department, shaped the letter into a choral reading, where King’s words rolled around the group of readers in a cascade of eloquence.
To some, this act of just speaking the letter aloud for 20 minutes in the public space of a building on campus and in Decorah may seem insignificantly tiny, but we put our voices and our body in the way—perhaps even inconveniencing people as they rushed to get to the next thing—and perhaps they heard some of King’s call to action. Even more, I hoped that the participants in the reading would soak in what they were reading and be changed.
Radford-Hill reflects on her original idea on Luther's MLK day website: "In April 1963, Martin Luther King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights launched a campaign that they hoped would end segregation in Alabama. From mass meetings, to marches, to sit-ins, to boycotts to the writing of a Birmingham Manifesto, blacks in Alabama threw everything they had at the tyranny of segregation by law. By 1963, King had been developing the philosophy of nonviolence for more than a decade but the Alabama campaign was the most eloquent and direct manifestation of the ideology of nonviolence to date.
"Hundreds were arrested during the Birmingham campaign, in the turmoil of massive civil disobedience; religious leaders wrote an open letter to criticize the movement for Civil Rights. The religious leaders in the community were counseling the descendants of slaves to postpone their demands for full citizenship that had already been denied for generations.
"King answered their letter with a determined yet gracious argument about why the black citizens of Birmingham would no longer be denied their God-given rights as human beings.
"In our present day, too many of us step back when confronted with the opportunity to speak out against injustice. It's too much trouble, it's too time-consuming, it takes too long, and it's easier to indulge privilege than to resist oppression.
"As the Africana Studies department discussed the MLK lecture, I wondered if the occasion could be used to recapture some of the commitment and courage of King’s generation. What better way to encourage our hearts than to read the Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
"Reading Dr. King's beautiful statement of courage and light, together as a community is a fitting tribute to our national heritage of movements for justice and peace."